A month ago I happened upon a short story on NPR about the rule of reciprocation
. The human inclination to reciprocate has been used by canny individuals and organizations throughout time to extract factorable actions from others. Over the years I have worked for companies that have different standards about gifts received from vendors and business partners. Some employers forbid any gratuity. At the time I thought this was extreme and unnecessary, but I now have an appreciation, even respect for such a firm policy. I find myself wondering how much an inexpensive meal might have influenced my decisions. I want to say it hasn’t, or only minimally, but how can I know?
One of the examples cited in the NPR story was the Hare Krishna passing out “free” flowers and then asking for a donation. I can still remember the first time I saw a Hare Krishna doing this in an airport: a tired traveler was trying to get through the airport as quickly as he could, a Hare Krishna moved to block the traveler’s path, nearly forced a flower into his hand and then requested a donation. What happened next surprised me, the frustrated and angry traveler pull out his wallet and gave a donation even though he clearly didn’t want the flower nor did he want to support Hare Krishna.
Yesterday we were walking in Haight-Asbury district and a “monk” told my daughter that he liked her haircut, placed several books in her hand saying they were a free gift of enlightenment, and then asked for a donation. She wasn’t carrying any cash and said so. He turned to me, and asked for a donation. I said I had no money for him. He tried to guilt me into giving him money suggested that I likely drove a Volvo and had plenty of money. I was unmoved. He took the books back from my daughter and looked for his next victim. It wasn’t a free gift or a genuine desire to share a blessing. This is an attempt to manipulate us into giving him money. Shame on him.
I started to think about other encounters I have had over the last few years and realized that I have become much less influenced by reciprocation. It used to be that when I was given a gift and I didn’t have a gift to give in return would often make up an excuse, and then as quickly as possible go out and purchase a “gift” to return. I rarely feel that today. I used to fight for the bill when sharing a meal with a friend. With some friends and family members it was a competition to see who could get the server to give them the bill. In the last year I have lost most of this compulsion. Most meals I still offer to pick up the tab, a way to demonstrate my appreciation for the time we shared, but if my dining partner suggests splitting the bill or offers to pick up the tab I don’t fight about it. Am I becoming someone is so selfish that reciprocity has not impact? I don’t think so.
Gifts seem to have an increasingly small influence on me, but I am also finding myself feeling freer to give gifts. I find myself worrying less about how people will perceive me, and more on my attitude when receiving and/or giving a gift. I wrote a bit about the dynamics of giving a couple of weeks ago in the post Compassion or Control. Today feel less guilt when I don’t offer help to someone on the street than I did a couple of years ago, but it’s not because I am becoming more uncaring, just that I don’t feel called to help that one person at this time. That isn’t to say that I don’t offer help. Fairly frequently when asking “Can you spare a dollar so I can get something to eat” I will pause and offer a quick prayer for the person and their situation. Often I will be moved to say “I don’t have a spare dollar, but I have a debt card, lets take you to XYZ and I will buy you a meal”. But if I don’t have a sense that I need to do something, I am content.
After years of studying the Bible, learning from Jesus’ life, learning more about God, I have come to truly believe in grace. That is unmerited favor. That there is NOTHING I can do to make God love me. That anything good that has happened to me is not because I am good or done something “right”, but because God is good, kind, merciful. So when I am given something “for free”, I receive it with thankfulness, without the expectation that I can pay the person back. Likewise, I am feeling increasingly free to give where I feel led, be that my money, time, energy, and attention and to not worry so much about the response I get. I think this is a good thing, even if it sometimes violates others expectations.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.